India’s current policy framework for air pollution is a patchwork of mostly ineffective rules and regulations that are rarely enforced. To fight the airpocalypse, India needs to centralise the air pollution policy and enforce it strictly.
People in north India have been inhaling hazardous air for the last one month. Some air quality monitors in New Delhi recorded readings as high as 999 and, on 1 November, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal declared the national capital a “gas chamber”.
While the ‘airpocalypse’ is seasonal and to a significant extent driven by stubble burning, a sustainable solution to India’s round-the-year air pollution crisis requires deep structural changes.
Centralise policy initiatives
At the Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy (ISEP), hosted at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, we have modelled the atmospheric dispersion of air pollution in India. Considering all major sectors of the Indian economy that are responsible for emissions, from the power sector to residential biomass burning and transportation, we find that about one-half of air pollution travels across state boundaries. This issue is particularly alarming vis-a-vis the industrial and power sectors.
Under these conditions, local air pollution control mechanisms are bound to be ineffective. The hazardous air quality seen in any given city or town in north India stems from a wide range of sources spread across the country. There is very little Delhi, Haryana or Punjab can do on their own to clean the air.
Instead, the Narendra Modi government needs to centralise air pollution control policies and invest resources in enforcement. While some air pollution regulations, such as emission standards for power plants, are centralised, the regulatory authorities are mostly at the state level, like the state pollution control boards. These boards have little incentive to tackle emissions that travel to other states. Each state’s air pollution control board is ultimately accountable to the state’s chief minister and not to the authorities in other states.
This lack of central responsibility is why the boards have little interest in curbing air pollution that hurts other states. No matter how much people in Delhi complain, authorities in Haryana, Punjab or Uttar Pradesh have little reason to act. Conversely, air pollution from Delhi affects crores of people living outside the National Capital Territory, but the Delhi Pollution Control Committee lacks the motive to consider these impacts.
Besides fragmentation, India also suffers from weak enforcement. Although the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) set emission standards for power plants in December 2015, very few plants have actually cared to install the technology to comply with them. The CPCB lacks the resources, staff and authority to crack down on non-compliant plants.
These problems are common for other sectors too. Industrial emission standards, for instance, are not rigorously enforced by central authorities and compliance of automobile emission standards remains incomplete. Similarly, measures to control dust, both natural and from construction, are fragmented and incoherent.
The Ministry of Petroleum & Natural Gas is in charge of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Ujjwala Yojana, which aims to promote the use of liquefied petroleum gas. However, the scheme now mostly focuses on cooking fuel access instead of reducing household and ambient air pollution.
India’s air pollution problem is not going to disappear anytime soon. Centralising the regulatory authority and improving enforcement requires careful institutional design and capacity building over years.
And the case for doing so is overwhelming. We know that more than a million Indians die every year of air pollution. This is a public health crisis that requires urgent attention. Solving the problem without a centralised approach is virtually impossible because one-half of air pollution crosses state boundaries.
To solve the problem, the central government should strengthen the CPCB and offer it adequate resources to enforce policy. Specific policy solutions must cover all sectors and adopt medium-term view, but to discuss such solutions without centralising and enforcing air pollution control will be non-productive.
The author is the Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Professor and Director of Energy, Resources and Environment (ERE) at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is also the Founding Director of the Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy (ISEP), which conducts high-quality, policy-relevant research on energy and environment and has an active research programme in India. Follow him on Twitter @jurpelai. Views are personal.